Stories Change

The tide was low and I was wading in the still warm fall surf with beach poet and our yellow dog when I noticed a gathering of dark objects near the dunes. From that distance they looked like a loose pile of skull-sized rocks but I knew they weren’t. Hanna Beach can be rocky at times but it doesn’t have rocks that size.

I thought they were horseshoe crab shells. But I told myself they must be something else as I headed that way to investigate.

Horseshoe crabs on these beaches aren’t unusual. Discarded shells of various sizes, some with their creatures intact, often stay behind in the sand as the sea recedes twice a day. But I hadn’t seen more than a handful together before that walk.

horseshoe1

Horseshoe crabs scattered on Hanna Beach, Fall 2014

What I found near the dune was a group of more than two dozen shells, many of them among the largest I’ve seen during three years of walking area beaches. Most of the collection was together, some touching or tumbled off of another, with a few outliers several feet in both directions. A few had crabs or crab parts. Most were full shells or full shells minus a few tears or cracks. Some were resting on top of the sand. Some were buried or nearly buried. There was no pattern to their alignment. It was if a giant hand tossed them up on to the shore and left them where they landed. All of them without a doubt horseshoe crabs.

Horseshoe crabs are easy to recognize, so why would I doubt what I saw from the shore?

horseshoe2

Horseshoe crabs scattered on Hanna Beach, Fall 2014

Because it was different.

Changed.

We humans are obsessed with change. Whether we embrace or fear it, work to initiate it or strive to barricade or legislate against it, change is the most reliable aspect of our lives. How we react to it varies but our reactions are emotional. Change makes us FEEL something, just like a good story does.

There’s been a lot said, and written, and studied about what makes a good story, what humans look for or want in stories, and how stories change minds, open hearts, and transform societies. In recent years, marketing has made story their darling, rediscovering that telling a story is the best way to get and keep someone’s attention. Stories and storytelling are everywhere we look, listen, read, and worship.

“Storytelling is the most powerful way to put ideas into the world today.”
–Robert McKee

All of this chatter about what makes a good story and why we like stories and how we use stories to sell apples, promote war, or foster understanding and empathy, has led to a world of writing and storytelling advice ranging from contradictory to awful. There are some gems among the muck, however, and one of those can be found in Lisa Cron’s definition of story.

“A story is how what happens (the plot) affects someone (the protagonist) in pursuit of a difficult goal (the story questions) and how he or she changes
as a result (which is what the story is actually about.” –Lisa Cron,
The biggest Mistake Writers Make and How to Avoid it

Stories are like snapshots, but snapshots capture a moment, whereas stories capture movement.

IMG_6135

The Poles at Hanna Beach, Fall 2014

Stories are not just a revelation of what happened. Stories are about how someone changes as a result of what happened. Stories are about change — not external or situational change, but the individual change brought about by those external shifts of circumstance.

Personal growth.

“If you keep telling the same sad small story, you will keep living the same sad small life.” — Jean Houston

Good stories–the ones we biologically crave, the ones that stay with us and shape us, the ones that change hearts, minds, and societies–are stories about how people are affected by what happens to them, how we are changed by change. We’re looking for examples of how to react and rebound, or sometimes how not to handle life’s shifts and turns. Regardless of the style or setting, the fairy tales, scifi epics, and literary tomes that captivate us are the ones that change the main characters, the readers or audience, and those of us telling the tale.

IMG_6136

Looking south toward Atlantic Beach, Neptune Beach, and Jax Beach from The Poles at Hanna Beach, Fall 2014

Stories change you, change me, explain change, embody change, ARE change. Wherever there is a change, there is a story.

Believe it.

Tell it.

Change.

 

 

 

This is the third and final blog of our three-part series on story.

Advertisements

What’s Your Story?

Imagine if when we met someone new we asked “What’s your story?” instead of “What do you do?” Their answer would not only be more interesting, but it would provide the information we’re actually seeking. Most of us don’t care what someone’s job title is. What we want to know is what they are about. What’s important to them? Are they someone we want to get to know better?

Part of the story of the Hanna Beach crossover at The Poles is that it's the northernmost entrance to more than 5 miles of continuous public beaches spanning more than 3 coastal communities.

Part of the story of the Hanna Beach crossover at The Poles is that it’s the northernmost entrance to several miles of continuous public beaches spanning more than 3 coastal communities.

 

As established in part 1 of this series, Tell Me A Story, telling stories is how we get to know each other and make sense of the world we share. All of us, just by being human, have stories.

“To be a person is to have a story to tell.”  — Isak Dineson

One of my first writing students was an older woman who spent her days visiting her husband at an assisted living facility and maintaining the home they once shared. Their children and grandchildren visited regularly, and she participated and volunteered in a few organizations, but she spent much of her time alone. She enjoyed her family, gardening, and painting. Her life was full and happy (aside from the sadness associated with her husband’s health of course).  I learned these things about her slowly over the nine-week course. But she told me her story the first night, when I asked each student why they had signed up for Beginning Creative Nonfiction.

She took my class because she wanted to learn how to write about her desperate escape from North Korea as a young girl, her terrifying journey to safety in South Korea, and then her immigration to the U.S. She wanted to document that experience for future generations of her family, people she would not be able to tell in person. And she wanted to leave that legacy for her children’s children’s children bad enough to take a community arts class to learn how to write it.

That was her story as she navigated the last stretch of her life. But it wasn’t her only story. As we got to know each other during the class and after, she also told me stories about life in North Korea before she had to leave, immigrating, adapting to a new culture and becoming an American, and raising a family. She had many stories to tell, but only one she felt compelled to write.

Beach dog's story is happiness--finding it where ever you are, soaking it in, and sharing it with others.

Beach dog’s story is happiness–finding it where ever you are, soaking it in, and sharing it with others.

We sometimes think only writers and other creative people have stories inside them demanding to be shared, but with all humans being born storytellers, there are more than a few people we meet who have stories they want to tell but aren’t sure how or who to share them with.

“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”  — Maya Angelou

But if we are born to tell and crave stories, if we are living our lives in a sea of stories as we learned in What Is A Story, why does anyone have trouble writing them, or sharing them? Why is it ever hard to find one to tell?

Some of that difficulty stems from the language we use and our culture of story. We describe stories as elusive creatures that must be hunted, discovered, and captured. We tell each other and ourselves that stories are like shark teeth that few people can find, uncover, or receive as whispers from a coy muse.

Stories are not rare trinkets coughed up on the coastline. But they do need to be recognized, picked up, cleaned up, and told. Failure to recognize the stories of our lives and our imaginations causes a large part of writer’s block and creative angst.

We don’t encourage that recognition by constantly asking people what they do, which we all know translates to what’s your job title and what does society pay you for? Those of us who earn a living in creative fields may appear to have similar answers to what do you do and what’s your story. But even for artists, job titles reflect only what others see in us, not who we are or what we see in ourselves and the world around us.

When my student from North Korea was asked what she did she answered “Oh, I’m retired now.” It’s the same answer my grandmother gave toward the end of her life when her story was that she was the keeper of generations of family memories and lore. Earlier in my grandmother’s life she’d been a rebellious teen who risked not graduating high school by getting married before her senior year was over, obsessively frugal from surviving the Great Depression, and a young mother who traveled across the country alone with a toddler while pregnant so that she could see her sailor before he shipped out during WWII. She also bought the house she grew up in and raised her own children in it, thereby keeping it in the family for more than 100 years. She had volumes of stories about her experiences and the lives of several generations before her, and she told them to anyone who would listen, or who sat near her at holidays, reunions, weddings, and funerals. But she wouldn’t say, or even think, any of that when asked what do you do.

I lost touch with the woman from North Korea many years ago and I don’t know if she finished writing her escape story. When my grandmother died, she took all of her stories with her. Nobody ever thought of writing, recording, filming, or otherwise preserving everything she knew, and now we’re left with a handful of black and white photos of people who lived more than a century ago, that we know nothing about. I didn’t realize while my grandmother was still with us, or when I was helping my student, just how vital story is to our lives. Stories not only make sense of our lives and teach us about each other and the world. They also teach us about ourselves. Our stories, real or imagined, shared or closely guarded, make us who we are.

Understanding the power of story has changed how I live. I notice details. I interact with not just people, but also places, and things. And I’ve finally started sharing the stories I tell and write–through the news articles and columns I published in the past, writing classes I’ve taken and taught, this blog, and soon the handful of both fiction and nonfiction manuscripts I have in various stages of polishing, finishing, and dusting off. All of them are pieces of my overall story, but can stand alone, to entertain, inform, caution, or guide whoever reads them.

“Trust your story.”  —  Neil Gaimen

My answer to what’s your story would have been different through the years depending on where and who I was at the time, but today my story is stories–living them, recognizing them, telling them, writing them, and helping other people write theirs.

What’s your story?

The same Hanna Beach - Poles walkover as pictured above but viewed from the surf. Now it's story is an invitation to venture inland, across the dunes and through the canopy to see what adventure awaits inland.

The same Hanna Beach – Poles walkover as pictured above but viewed from the surf. Now its story is an invitation to venture inland, across the dunes and through the trees of the maritime hammock to see what adventure awaits inland.

This is the second of a three-part series on story. Part three will be Stories Change.

Luck has nothing to do with it

Hanna Beach at Kathryn Abbey Hanna Park, Jacksonville, FL

Hanna Beach at Kathryn Abbey Hanna Park

It happened again last week. Someone said I was lucky to live near the beach. It’s a maddeningly common phrase. You’re so lucky to…have thick, curly hair…be tall…be athletic…be talented/artistic/creative…win the lottery.

Some of those do involve luck. Games of chance. Genetics. But most of what we achieve or have in life owes nothing to happenstance.

We worked for it. We sacrificed. We failed. We tried, tried again. We (wo)manned up. We planned. Practiced. Persevered.

We didn’t leave anything to chance.

Our language is filled with platitudes and clichés about luck vs. achievement through struggle, courage, and will because it is a central question of being human. But don’t worry, I have no plans to answer it here.  Probably couldn’t even if I wanted to. I’ll stick to something I know, which is that luck wasn’t involved with my proximity to sand and surf.

I live near the beach by choice, courage, determination, and sacrifice.

I wasn’t born here. I wasn’t offered a dream job with paid relocation. I didn’t win the lottery.

Jax Beach

Jax Beach

I set a goal.

What I did to achieve that goal is too long of a tale to tell here. It’s book-length, actually, and the subject of my current WIP (for my readers who aren’t writers, WIP = work-in-progress). Eventually it will be finished and published but I didn’t want to wait that long to deliver one of the morals of the story…

Don’t wait for your beach to find you.

Recently I visited a close friend who found her beach in the middle of the country, along Lake Michigan. We have proclaimed ourselves sand sisters and our personal Facebook pages often feature dueling photos of sand, sunsets, and seagulls. Another thing we have in common is that luck didn’t have anything to do with her relocation either.

Indiana Dunes Beach at Indiana Dunes State Park

Indiana Dunes Beach at Indiana Dunes State Park

And it doesn’t have anything to do with creativity.

Writers, poets, sculptors, painters, photographers, dancers, singers, musicians, designers, architects, engineers, and anyone else who uses inspiration and imagination to make something from the same raw ingredients that others pass by aren’t creative because they are lucky. They work. They practice. They fail. They try again.

They choose to create.

You can too. All it takes is realizing that luck has nothing to do with it.

North Jax Beach, Neptune Beach, and Atlantic Beach, from the Jax Beach Fishing Pier

North Jax Beach, Neptune Beach, and Atlantic Beach, from the Jax Beach Fishing Pier